December 17, 2014
by Cinnabar

Really, really aged tea

bottle of teaThe role played by tea in the formation of an independent United States is a familiar one, but one aspect of this history that I had never considered before was the possibility that some of the actual tea offloaded in protest into Boston Harbor might be preserved in the archival collections of historians and collectors. Knowing that tea casks, related documents, and other Boston Tea Party artifacts were still in existence, I shouldn’t have been surprised that there is actual tea, but it’s interesting to think about what that tea would be like after contact with salt water, political foment, rough handling, and after so much time. If I did not know about teas aged intentionally, I might assume that the leaves would have organically degraded into dust, like a tomato or a leaf of lettuce. But after a friend brought an article on this very topic to my attention I did a little exploring, and found that there are quite a few samples of this tea, tucked into vials, bottles, little glass caskets, and in display cases in various locations throughout the country.

Sometimes the most unassuming objects can take on powerful meaning. A small, sealed glass bottle of tea, displayed at the American Antiquarian Society, is a case in point. Donated in 1840 by the Reverend Thaddeus M. Harris (1768-1842), a Unitarian clergyman in Dorchester, Massachusetts, and a member of AAS, the tea is one of the most compelling objects for visitors touring the library. Less than five inches high, the mold-blown, pale aqua bottle filled with tea leaves is wrapped at its mouth with twill tape and sealed with red sealing wax. Its attached paper label reads: “Tea Thrown into Boston Harbor Dec. 16, 1773.”

Read the rest of the article, “An Old Vial of Tea with a Priceless Story: The Destruction of the Tea, December 16, 1773.”

A little additional historical background, from the article, “Tea leaves in glass bottle collected on the shore of Dorchester Neck the morning of 17 December 1773“:

Tea Act of 1773
The seeds of the Boston Tea Party were sown in the spring of 1773, when Parliament passed the Tea Act of 1773 in an attempt to prevent the East India Company from going bankrupt. This act authorized the company to sell a half million pounds of tea directly to the colonies, without paying the usual duties and tariffs. This meant that the East India Company could undersell anyone, including smugglers, whose tea colonists had been drinking almost exclusively since the passage of the Townshend Acts that placed taxes on everyday items like glass, paper, and tea in 1767 (all the Townshend Acts except that on tea had been repealed in 1770). Parliament reasoned that if the colonists could buy East India Company tea more cheaply than any other, they would begin drinking it again, thus saving the company. Instead, the act revived the colonists’ old argument about taxation without representation and led to the events of 16 December.

What if it were possible to actually brew and drink some of this historically weighty tea? Would you do it? Would it be a disrespectful act of self-indulgence, like wanting to roast and consume a woolly mammoth that has been frozen for centuries?

Note: the accompanying photo is not the actual artifact from the Boston Tea Party (but you can view a photograph of one here). I did not have usage rights for the photo used in the article quoted, so I used a different photo.

January 14, 2014
by Cinnabar

Confessions of a Tea Blogger (I was tagged!)

A round of tea blog tag was started last year by Lu Ann (whose name I am tempted to spell “Liu An” since that would make her name a type of tea) of The Cup of Life. Following that original post, which had five tea bloggers tagged in it, there has been a series of people tagging and writing, leading eventually to Michael Coffey of Tea Geek tagging me. So, inspired by obligation, here are my “confessions.”

Note: The questions have been the same in each of the related “Confessions of a Tea Blogger” posts.

Cups of puer

1) First, let’s start with how you were introduced & fell in love with the wonderful beverage of tea.

As described in my essay in Katrina Avila Munichiello‘s book “A Tea Reader,” I fell head-long into a deep involvement in tea and tea culture after visiting a local Chinese tea shop and finding the entire experience utterly compelling: the process, the tools and equipment, the science behind it, and of course the sensory experience of the tea itself. I had always been interested in different forms of cultural practices related to food and beverages, and found in tea a wealth of information and experience. This initial foray led to a lot of research, writing, tasting, and dialogue with other people throughout the worldwide tea community. My interests have not been confined exclusively to Chinese tea practice, although China is the source of a lot of the inspiration for my writing about tea. Essentially, I was hooked into the world of tea by the depth and variety of different ways of looking at it. I found a topic for exploration that would engage my interests in art, science, culture, religion, politics, etymology – and beyond – without leaving the subject of this single plant. That is quite remarkable.

2) What was the very first tea blend that you ever tried?

That is a difficult question to answer, because no tea blend has ever inspired much interest in me. I appreciate the skill that goes into creating fine blends of different teas, but the only teas that have ever really spoken to me are pure, single origin teas. There is such complexity and variety in high quality specific production teas I don’t have any motivation to seek out combinations of teas.

If I were to approach the question more loosely, to be about the first tea that really excited me, I have a strong memory of the first time that I tasted a lightly oxidized Competition Grade Tie Guanyin from Anxi, China, and was amazed by the depth of flavor and aroma. That particular tea made me realize that there was a lot going on with tea, and that I wanted to continue expanding my taste experiences. I have tasted many other pure teas that are also fantastic since then, but that was the first tea that invoked such a passionate response from my palate.

3) When did you start your tea blog & what was your hope for creating it?

My tea blog was actually started by someone else, Colleen Mathis of, who had discovered the exciting world of Chinese Gongfu Cha around the same time that I did, and had started blogging about tea after creating the Gongfu Girl website in 2006. I came on board as a contributing writer shortly after that, along with a small number of other writers. For various reasons, Colleen became unable to continue drinking and writing about tea, and the other original contributors have also moved on to different priorities. As a result, the blog has become primarily a one-person enterprise, although I do periodically have guest contributors. My entire motivation for blogging about tea is spreading information and passion about the wonders of the tea plant, in all of the fabulous ways that it is used and appreciated all over the world. I enjoy writing because it motivates me to learn more, and I enjoy sharing what I learn with others.

4) List one thing most rewarding about your blog & one thing most discouraging.

The most rewarding aspect of my blog is that it has enabled me to connect with so many other people who share my interest in tea, who have different knowledge and experience from what I have myself. I am also very proud of the work I have done over the past years, and have been told that people find my writing informative and enjoyable to read, so there is great satisfaction in that. The only discouragement I have is that I am unable to devote more time to writing. I have a backlog of quite a few posts, just waiting to get tackled and published.

Samovar5) What type of tea are you most likely to be caught sipping on?

I am partial to red teas (in Western terminology, “black teas”) from Yunnan, China. A nice malty Dian Hong is perhaps my default tea, but I drink teas from all over the place, and am just as likely to be drinking a Japanese green tea as I am a sheng puer or Taiwanese roasted oolong. I am much more likely to be drinking a small production, single origin tea, and what I drink is often determined by where I am at the time.

6) Favourite tea latte to indulge in?

“Latte” is defined as a hot beverage that contains espresso and milk. I recognize that there are establishments that make some sort of abomination that combines hot (or cold) tea with milk and/or some sickly-sweet syrup that is marketed as a “tea latte,” but in order to indulge in something, one must not find that thing entirely repugnant. I don’t have anything against coffee – I drink coffee sometimes. But I have no love for milky, sugary beverages of any kind. I want to be able to taste my tea specifically. I did taste a Starbucks “Awake” Latte once just to confirm that I hated it. I did.

7) Favourite treat to pair with your tea?

Unlike many people I prefer not to consume any foods while I am drinking tea. I do appreciate the sweets that accompany matcha, especially the red bean cakes, and sometimes I do eat those before drinking a bowl of ceremonial grade matcha. But for the most part I drink tea entirely unaccompanied by anything that is not also a cup of tea. Sidenote: This also applies to wine, which I prefer drinking by itself so I can fully appreciate the pure experience.

That said, I can appreciate the experience of pairing teas with foods or other beverages. I just don’t tend to do it myself most of the time.

8) If there was one place in the world that you could explore the tea culture at, where would it be & why?

I would like to visit Chou Zhou in Guangdong, China. The tea culture there has its own character and methods, which have been developed over a long period of time. This is where the incredible Dan Cong Wulongs (single bush) are grown and produced, and the region has developed specific styles of tea ware that are used to prepare them. I think that the experience of these teas at origin would be amazing.

9) Any tea time rituals you have that you’d like to share?

I don’t think that I have tea ritual; rather I have tea practice. I am using “practice” in the same way that it is used when discussing martial arts. Ritual, to me seems like habits performed for some external purpose other than the direct experience of the tea, which is not generally something involved in my tea consumption. I prepare and drink tea using a lot of different methods, particularly when I am trying to learn something new – like how tea is prepared traditionally in Morocco, for example – but that’s not ritual. My tea practice is actually rather haphazard, with very little consistency as to what time of day, where I am, or any other defining element of when and how I drink tea.

When I am preparing tea using Gongfu Cha methods, I am very focused on the experience and actions, but I wouldn’t necessarily say that there is any ritual involved.

10) Time of day you enjoy drinking tea the most: Morning, Noon, Night or Anytime?

Any time. I live on a very odd schedule with work in different places on different days. I’m not at all consistent about when I drink tea.

11) What’s one thing you wish for tea in the future?

I am going to echo what Michael Coffey said in that I would also like to see the cultivation of a higher level of knowledge and understanding of tea and tea culture here in the United States. There is ongoing and growing interest in tea here in the US, which is great, but there needs to be much more engagement by tea drinkers in learning about how the tea gets to their cup: how was it grown, harvested, produced, and sold. A more educated body of tea drinkers helps to insure support of the better aspects of the tea industry.

Whom do you tag?

Steven Knoerr, of The 39 Steeps

Lainie Petersen, of Lainie Sips

Thomas Conner, of Tea Squared

Heather Porter, of Hanamichi

August 29, 2013
by Cinnabar

Tea in the Tang Dynasty

This video shows a very elaborate and ceremonial demonstration of a tea gathering by Didi Ryu and two other women, who are not credited by name. I believe that she works for a company called “Golden Damo Puerh Tea,” but I was unable to find any details on the company. The purpose of the demonstration was to prepare and present tea as it would have been done in the late Tang Dynasty, according to the procedures laid out by Lu Yu in the Cha Jing. It appears likely that they also relied on paintings from that time period for some of the stylistic detail.

Disclaimer: since I was unable to understand that narrative or read the text overlays since they were in Mandarin, I only have the information that I was able to glean by observation.

tang dynasty teapotI can’t vouch for the accuracy of the preparation and ceremony itself, aside from recognizing that they are using accurate tools from that time, but I do believe that they were genuinely attempting to portray historical accuracy. The steps and procedures follow what we know from Lu Yu’s treatise, and the beautiful and elegant presentation is quite interesting to watch. That said, there are a couple of things that disappointed me, all contained within the suspicion that they did not actually prepare any tea in the demonstration.

One indicator is that I don’t think that the brazier they’re using is actually burning. There is no steam, the lackadaisical manner in which the attendant is fanning the fire seems ineffective at best, and when the tea is ready to be served into the cups the woman picks up the bowl of the brazier with her bare hands and transports it to the table. No human I know could pick up a metal bowl that had been directly over a coal fire without getting burned.

Also, although we do not get any detailed views of the tea itself, there is a brief glimpse of a standard contemporary puer cake, and the attendant is shown grinding the tea into a fine powder using a mortar. This powdered tea is then transferred into the bowl of the brazier, with the understanding that it is being boiled. After this process, the finished tea is ladled into cups with a spoon, and held out to the audience, but the tea is not shown, and nobody is shown consuming it.

I would be curious to experience tea prepared in this way, but I would want all of the effort to go into producing a fully authentic experience, ending with an actual taste of the tea.

tang dynasty teapot

Note: the accompanying photographs are of a teapot in my collection. I believe that it is brass over a clay teapot body, and is probably gold-plated, although some of the plating has worn off. I was told that it was made during the Tang Dynasty and came from Famen Temple. (I can’t verify the accuracy of this, but it is a fascinating piece of tea ware, and is not a reproduction.) Note the similarity in style and motifs to the tea ware pieces used in the demonstration.